March 27, 2017

Beauty and the Beast: A Skeptic's View

It's not a perfect remake of a near perfect film, but it is very close to it. Disney's new live action version Beauty and the Beast is easily the most compelling of the remake lot, including the winning adaption of Cinderella. I'm reminded here of Director Bill Condon's comment -"I just thought it was the most beautiful and perfect movie. Why remake something that's perfect?" Good question, and it's one fans should be asking about every Disney animated into live action conversion. Regardless of all the press, I had to see it for myself and make up my own mind.

The film is aimed at teens and older. It's in an entirely different league than the animated classic, much gruffer and grittier with fewer humorous elements. Much more akin to Beastly, the more modern (2011) take on the tale as old as time. It is not for young children. Darker, moodier, more violent, and just plain adult in theme, the emotional complexities of death, war, and disease are not your normal topics for a kid film, yet they are subtle but key elements to this story that are missing from the original.

As a big fan of the original, the differences were very noticeable, and they began with the new narration and opening sequence. Effective but very different, signaling clearly that this is not the  animated film of days gone by. The music reflects this transition as well. The score feels dark, with the arrangements and performances less buoyant and bright. Even the upbeat numbers reveal more than a twinge of desperation under the surface.

In this version, it's less important that these characters can sing well than it was in the animated film, especially one that followed up The Little Mermaid, the film that was the beginning of Disney's animation rebirth. Now, years later, this new story is so powerful and such an accomplishment that it wouldn't have needed to be a musical at all- even though fans of the original would be disappointed. That said, of all the vocal pieces, Dan Stevens' solo, the new Evermore, is unexpected- a simply beautiful standout performance. But more on the music later.

Smart, beautiful, and a stunning voice.

A very fine portrayal of Belle- even without Paige O'Hara's great pipes.

This is a movie where Disney's promotional machine was clearly out of touch with reality in more than a few key points- or at least it became obvious they were attempting to manipulate the potential audience. Let's start with our leads. If you've read this blog, you know I was not a fan of Emma Watson playing the iconic lead character. I saw her as too young, too boyish, and lacking elegance and maturity. Additionally, the entire cast including Ms. Watson herself made it seem as if this Belle was a revelation, when in fact, she was no more of a groundbreaking role model than before. The hype machine made me believe Belle had become strident, domineering, and overbearing. Ugh. 

In reality, her performance was delightfully nuanced and increasingly rich as the film progressed. Watson displayed a convincing vulnerability in all the key spots. This was so necessary to making her Belle lovable. I found her even charming and warm- something I did not expect. You heard it first- her adequate singing aside- I was wrong. She was terrific, winning me over by the time she explored the West Wing. As much as I love Paige O'Hara's voice, I equally appreciate Emma Watson's portrayal of my favorite Disney heroine.  

More of a klutz.

More mature but still unsure any girl could love a beast.

In the animated film, Beast was a fairly one-dimensional character. He's moderately more developed here but still secondary to Belle and Gaston in time allotted on screen. A bit more of Beast's backstory unfolds, and it is to the new film's advantage, particularly when it comes to developing his budding romance with the village girl. 

There are more not so subtle changes. His Beast is a well read adult with a dry sense of humor and more mature, with an overall better understanding of relationships. This must be partially due to the fact he was not restricted to breaking the curse before he reached the age of 21- certainly a concession to Dan Stevens being quite a bit older. One small gripe- I do wish Beast had thought of giving her the library as in the original. It may have displayed some of his growth in truly understanding his woman. Strengths aside, Beast is still full of rage and melancholy, but there's got to be a downside if you're rich, handsome, and have an absolute killer of a castle. Right? 

Much to his credit, Dan Stevens' beautiful performance is intentionally understated, not only strengthening his position as the moody and mysterious leading man but also showing his commitment to the success of the story, allowing others to take center stage for the benefit of all.  

Personal confession time- half way through writing this post, I stopped to watch the animated version while the new release was still fresh in my mind. This only reinforced what I had witnessed: Comparisons to the animated version couldn't be avoided, but from a practical sense, they are two very different movies and need to retreated as such.

Here Gaston is vain, dumb, and evil.

Now he's vain, wounded, and even more evil.

Much has been made of the biggest variation of all- LeFou and his man crush on Gaston. I'll definitely make an observation here, but it's more important to first discuss the character portrayals by the actors. Truly, Luke Evans is Gaston. He now owns the role, and I doubt if anyone else will ever be able to match him in a live action version. 

Long before Frozen, Disney broke new ground in animation by making the story's villain physically appealing. Now, Gaston's character is taken a step further as his background is told during key places in the action. He doesn't illicit sympathy, but we understand a bit more of why he is who he is. While he does not have the strength of singing voice as Richard White from the animated version, Evans more than compensates by bringing greater depth to what could be a stereotyped villain. Even if Evans vocal performance feels lacking in the tavern's opening musical number, he does sound more convincing and relaxed on the reprise of his self-titled song, even more so later when he convinces the townspeople its time to get rid of his competition. Again, this trade off is a small price to pay for such a powerfully stunning  performance.

Gaston's initially charming personality gives way to outright evil, gradually increasing with every scene and culminating in his treatment of Maurice and the murder of Beast. Chilling. Powerful. And perfect for this adult treatment of the fairy tale. Like many folks, Gaston never realizes the depth of his pain and brokenness, unlike Beast who longs for forgiveness and another chance to redeem his life. In this way, Beast tells everyman's story. We all have regrets of choices we've made, and we wish we could go back and change them. We ask ourselves, "What benefit did we reap at that time from the things we are now ashamed of?" And we understand those things result in despair and even death of sorts. Loss of innocence. Loss of trusting in our own way. These very mature themes of redemption come into play here in the film, making good fodder for discussion. (If you want to read about the original thought and creation behind Beast, read the animator's story here.)

I find Josh Gad's portrayal of the loyal sidekick LeFou to be a disservice to gay men. His flamboyant posturing and over the top personality is a gay cliche' at best, a parody, and I find it to be insulting. I've had a few gay friends, and not one fits the stereotype shown here. It is the totally wrong presentation for Hollywood to assert on traditional values America. The film clumsily attempts to let LeFou redeem himself by the end, but the underdeveloped effort falls flat, leaving LeFou to be an even bigger villain of a different sort: a coward. It would have been better for Bill Condon to stand by the original reading of the character.

The "gay moment" has been overplayed by both sides of the media and some of the cast and crew. Honestly, if you blink, it's over. The Liberal side has cheered and championed it all- and they fell right into the marketeers' hands by ensuring they would spend their dollars (and yen and euros etc.) to see the movie. Frankly, they took the bait. There's nothing to be proud of here, and as I have written above, how the character is portrayed is certainly not worth celebrating. Not in the least. He's just as lost as Gaston.

The Conservative side of America has bemoaned LeFou's character and mostly avoided seeing an excellent film worthy of so much praise. In addition, unfortunately, too many sources claimed scenes in the film that never materialized, and some readers took the bait as well. Frankly, this angers me even more. As a Christian, the most we are called to is Truth and Love (Jesus said He is The Way, The Truth, and The Life, and no one comes to God the Father but through Him). Shouldn't believers in the media adhere to a standard of being truthful? Actually, shouldn't all members of the media try to be truthful?

Regardless of the end result, the inclusion of LeFou being gay makes this a film for mature teens and adults. Again, these themes are not for small children who cannot understand the varied and numerous complexities associated with human sexuality, sickness, war and death. Each parent and not the media should be making the choices of when and how to educate their children with the values they hold as the ones responsible for their upbringing.

In watching the animated film immediately after seeing this one, I noticed just how many kid friendly segments were removed from the new version. Before, Chip almost functions as on screen narrator, asking questions of his mother that young viewers would need the answers for to follow the plot and have the characters actions make sense. The earlier film did not avoid LeFou's lifestyle. In fact, it made a slight reference to LeFou's potential sexual desires. Remember him walking down the tavern aisle in that mock wedding to Gaston? He seemed perfectly fine playing the bride. It was subtle, but it was there. All said, the amount of evil, violence, and the mature themes alone make the film anything but a Saturday matinee for the little ones- even if there was no "gay moment". For every other reason but including this one, I wouldn't bring my young children to this film. It's an excellent for an older audience and geared toward them. 

Loyal servants and true friends.

Perhaps my largest disappointment in the film was the minimal use of the very charming secondary characters. I particularly wanted to see more of Kevin Kline. Beyond being almost unnecessary to advancing the story, there were plenty of adult savvy comments made by Cogsworth ("Flowers, chocolates, promises you don't intend to keep") and Lumiere in the original that are missing here. They are not needed due to its already serious tone, but they were missed. I appreciated Mrs. Potts words regarding their commitment to the master and their part in making him who he was- and the chance to do it differently this time. Again, the multi-faceted complexities of adult relationships are in full display here, and that is to be celebrated.

Worthy of and faithful to the original.

Upon hearing of the live action remake of my favorite animated film, I was very curious as to how Disney would handle such iconic musical numbers, especially "Be Our Guest". I am pleased to report that it was delightful and fully worthy of praise for how it was handled. Lively, charming, and faithful to the original without concession to the more serious nature of the rest of the movie. In fact, it was a very needed break, one of the few pieces where humor was injected.  

The gang's all here.

Although darker, far more complex, and certainly less kid-friendly, faithful fans of Disney animated films have nothing to fear here. The studio's remake of this classic is more than admirably handled, a few quibbles aside. Go in with your eyes open, as well as your heart. Go see it, and judge for yourself. You'll find much to like and much to discuss. The new version not only displays the meaning of real beauty, acceptance, and love, it also reveals the unchanging nature of a fallen mankind and a chance for redemption. These eternal truths, which have made the story an enduring classic for generations, are presented in a powerful, beautiful, and creative way. 

Count me in as a converted skeptic. 

(Photographs and art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)


Don Trinh said...

Great review and well-written! Thank you.

Mark Taft said...

Thank you, Don! And thank you for reading!

Len Yokoyama said...

Fantastic review Mark...makes mine feel like an opening act filler...LOL!

Mark Sharp said...

For the most part I agree with your analysis of the film. But I do not see why inclusion of a gay character would in and of itself make it unsuitable for children. Aren't you not doing exactly the same thing you rightly call out others for? Anyway, most of the chatter on the matter is coming from heterosexuals. As you point out it's not a flattering portrayal. I guess considering the uproar they might just happy to be included at all. Historically if they were featured at all, they more often than not were portrayed as a villain or buffoon who's easily dispensable. Overall though the film hits the right tone and the pacing is good. I'm happy that Disney is finally doing live action films right. I just wish they'd come up with some original material.

Mark Taft said...

Hi Mark! (Like your name!) As a parent and grandparent, it is my opinion that issues regarding sexuality are best left to be discussed with children when a parent deems its age appropriate. Not for a film studio to determine. If you are a parent, I'd love to hear how you've handled it with your children. I could be wrong. It's happened. In this case, Disney is not marketing the film to kids as far as I can tell- BUT the story is so iconic that of course, kids who've seen the animated version will want to see it. The conundrum.

Yes, I was initially concerned about the whole "gay moment" issue. As I said in my review, it was overblown from both ends. I took the bait, believe the director and actor's words on it to be more substantial than it was. My mistake.

I don't think Disney knows how to do original material anymore because its all about the profits. Very shortsighted, I think.
Thanks for reading!

Mark Taft said...

Len, just saw your comments. I thought your review was excellent on all counts!